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Basement electrical

Started: 2015-07-19 15:15:25

Submitted: 2015-07-19 19:42:36

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator prepares the basement guest room as an au pair apartment, which involves removing and replacing the ceiling to fix the electrical system

As we prepared to host an au pair to take care of Julian during the day while Kiesa and I worked, our attention turned to reorganizing and cleaning up the basement to give our au pair somewhere to live. Kiesa decided to get professional help to attack the "happy homeowner" electrical system in the self-finished basement, and ended up with yet another gasp from a professional marveling in horror at the crimes against housing perpetrated by our house's former owners. This crime in particular was the way the light fixtures in the ceiling had been wired to the outlets above the hanging ceiling using a pigtail and a couple of wire splices. (I'm pretty sure I saw the electrician jerk his hand away when he was rummaging around in the ceiling and noticed this particular feature.)

Our electrician convinced us to redo the wiring in the basement, bringing it up (more-or-less) to the current version of code, and replace the existing light fixtures (some of which would blink on and off at random) with sexy dimmable LED lights. This included creating several new circuits to cover the basement, the basement bathroom, the sump pump we had installed during the flood, and the microwave in the kitchen. (The microwave was apparently installed in what was originally intended as a storage alcove above the hood above the stove, and was on the same circuit as the entirety of the basement, so if any guests tried to dry their hair at the same time the microwave was running it'd blow the circuit and plunge the entire basement into darkness.) This involved touching the breaker box, so the electrician convinced us to replace all of the circuit breakers with sexy new arc-fault breakers, which would trip in response to arcing and ground faults in addition to regular over-current faults. In the process we took out the circuit that had been installed by a prior owner for the hot tub to reclaim the space in the breaker box, and ended up with a new breaker box next to the existing one to hold all of the new circuits. We started with a quote in the low four figures, but as the work progressed and our intrepid electrician found new and even more exciting problems with our wiring the final bill ended up in the high four figures.

Electrical rewiring in process on kitchen counter
Electrical rewiring in process on kitchen counter

Aside from nodding sadly at reports of the sorry state of the electrical system, my direct role in the adventure was to remove and replace the ceiling tiles in the basement. I helped Kiesa take down the ceiling tiles before the electricians arrived to do their work, which proved to be easier than replacing all of them when the electricians were done.

Basement with ceiling tiles out
Basement with ceiling tiles out

Kiesa had the foresight to number all of the ceiling tiles she removed, so I could at least figure out what order they were supposed to go back in, but in the process of wedging the tiles back into the ceiling I ended up breaking some of them, in addition to needing to cut new holes for the new light fixtures, which were not in the same position as the old light fixtures.

New basement lighting with ceiling tiles removed
New basement lighting with ceiling tiles removed

(In the photo above you can also see the floor beams used in the construction of the house. This is in the basement, so the picture is looking up at the subfloor below the kitchen, dining room, and living room. In the last two houses I lived in with unfinished basements, both built in the late 1990s, the floor beams were composite wood products with laminated beams at the top and bottom separated by a field of particle board, with the general cross-section of a tall and skinny capital letter I. (A key feature of the beams was that the particle board had holes that could be punched out to run wires through, which I took advantage of while wiring Ethernet cables.) My current house, built in the early 1990s, has solid 2x10 beams running the entire span. I'm not sure if this is different housing techniques favored by different builders or if it's the result of changing economics in the wood-products industry in the 1990s.)

Once I replaced all of the ceiling tiles, over the course of several weeks, I faced the problem of dealing with the broken and improperly-holed ceiling tiles. I could easily find more traditional ceiling tiles in other patterns (like those in my office) but I couldn't identify the pattern on the tiles we had. I found a couple of moldy water-damaged ceiling tiles in the back corner of the crawl space under the family room (which is a dumping ground for extra building materials no one really wanted to get rid of, including a bunch of the ugly pre-finished wood flooring that we removed from the kitchen), which wasn't enough to consider replacing the existing tiles, but did give me a lead: I found printed on the back of the tiles the text "Armstrong" and "1133C". This led me to the "Armstrong Baltic" stucco-patterned ceiling tile. This did not seem to be an especially popular tile; the closest place I could find that would sell it to me was a Menard's in Cheyenne, Wyoming, an hour-and-a-half away.

I sat on this knowledge for a week at the end of June before deciding I really ought to drive to Cheyenne to pick up the ceiling tiles. They came in boxes of eight. I needed at least six to patch up the ceiling, so I bought two boxes, in the hopes that I'll never have to buy another ceiling tile as new ones break or are otherwise damaged.

When I drove to Wyoming I was amused to see a cluster of fireworks stores clustered at exit 2, the first exit after the state line. (I was slightly disappointed to see that there were not a collection of pot shops at the last exit in Colorado, but I did see billboards advertising the fireworks stores -- selling products that could not be legally taken back into or used in Colorado -- well into Colorado.)

Basement ceiling with new tiles
Basement ceiling with new tiles

The new ceiling tiles matched the old tiles well enough to withstand all but the most intense scrutiny. Once I wrested them all back into place the basement looked much better. Kiesa and I reorganized the furniture in the basement to clear out an open space and accommodate her mother when she visited last week. Whenever our au pair arrives (which is now under a cloud of uncertainty due to a last-minute medical issue) the basement will be ready for her as well.

Basement guest room set up for au pair
Basement guest room set up for au pair
Basement guest room set up for au pair
Basement guest room set up for au pair
You always learn more from someone whom you disagree with.
- Dr. Shepherd, 23 August 1999